Topeka — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday dropped his effort to move the state Human Rights Commission into the attorney general's office, a plan resisted by the commission and protested by activist groups as likely to make the agency more partisan and less effective.
Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the governor is still asking legislators to trim the commission's budget by about $231,000, or nearly 13 percent, during the fiscal year that begins July 1. But he won't try to cut its 25 full-time staff positions, and he'll accept it as a stand-alone agency, Jones-Sontag said.
She said the commission agreed to accept the governor's push for budget savings.
"The governor felt if they were willing to do that, he would work with them as a stand-alone commission," she told The Associated Press.
Brownback had included his plan to move the commission to the attorney general's office in his budget recommendations, among initiatives for making state government more efficient. But his administration also had said the change would make the commission stronger by putting the resources of the attorney general's office behind it as it investigated discrimination complaints.
The commission said the move could lead to legal conflicts of interest because the commission investigates discrimination complaints involving state agencies, and the attorney general's office defends agencies and employees. Critics of the move still plan to have a march and Statehouse rally Saturday in support of the commission, according to one organizer.
Asked whether the criticism led Brownback to back off, Jones-Sontag said, "Absolutely not."
But Joseph Mastrosimone, the commission's chief legal counsel, said he believes the criticism of Brownback's proposal, the plans for a rally to protest it and news reports about the debate were important factors in the turnabout.
"The commission is pleased the governor took into account the new information and made the right policy decision," Mastrosimone said. "It all sort of finally jelled and got somebody's attention over there."
Also, Mastrosimone said, the commission plans to work with the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committees to see if they can find "spare change" to offset the budget reductions Brownback is seeking. Under Brownback's recommendation, the commission's total budget would drop from $1.83 million to $1.6 million.
Mastrosimone said if lawmakers provide $1.68 million — about $80,000 more than Brownback proposes — the commission's operations won't be affected.
Brownback's recommendations originally assumed savings from eliminating three positions at the commission, including Mastrosimone's job and Executive Director William Minner's position.
The commission has seven members, appointed by the governor. It has been a stand-alone agency since 1953, and it's long had the power to issue subpoenas in its investigations. The commission suggested it wouldn't gain much from the move, and critics suggested it would lose its independence.
"We need to maintain an independent Human Rights Commission," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. "I think there is lots of potential for conflicts of interest. Just to risk that for a fairly minimal amount of money just is not worth it."
Brownback's staff has said the attorney general's office has long been able to manage such potential conflicts as part of its regular business. Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican like Brownback, has stayed out of the debate. His office has said if the commission was a part of it, discrimination claims still would be pursued vigorously.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican, said he's been concerned about various reorganization proposals from Brownback throughout state government, pushed by the governor as efficiency measures.
"What's the purpose?" he said. "Is it truly fiscal? Or is more, tighter control?"
The groups planning Saturday's rally include the state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Organization for Women, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and the gay-rights group Equality Kansas Coalition.
They plan to start with a march to the Statehouse from the national historic site commemorating the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.
"We're still going to have the march," said Thomas Witt, chairman of Equality Kansas Coalition. "We're still going to let our government know that we're here and we expect to be treated fairly."